Two quiet independent films slip into theaters soon, and each is worthy of your attention. Both premiered in Chicago earlier this year at the Chicago Critic's Film Festival, a week-long affair that's proving to be a local film staple previewing the year's best fare. It was there I saw A Ghost Story, The Little Hours, Patti Cake$ and more well before their theatrical release.
Columbus (Sept. 8) and Menashe (August 11) couldn't be more different in some ways, and yet they're strikingly similar. Each follows a male (minority) protagonist as he navigates a rocky time in his life. Each is built around a very specific setting, the architectural enclave of Columbus, Indiana (Columbus) and the Hassidic Jewish community of Brooklyn (Menashe). And each brings their respective world to life in crisp fashion, yet without much fanfare. It's the subtle but diligent care the filmmakers take that pays off for both films.Columbus is the feature film debut from visual artist Kogonada, who brings his keen eye for detail and presentation to every frame of his story about a grown son (John Cho, a standout as leading man) who visits Columbus, IN when his father, a renowned architect, becomes gravely ill. In real life as in the film, Columbus is a town known far and wide in design and architecture circles as a mecca of mid-century modernism. Cho's Jin is busy and distracted when he arrives to check in on a father he's not close to; it's the friendship he stumbles into with Casey, a young librarian (Haley Lu Richardson), that opens his eyes to the city's gems as well as his own preoccupations.
As he reconnects to his father's assistant (Parker Posey, always a bright spot in any cast), his first crush as a young man, and sorts out just what level of family obligation he's willing to commit to, Casey navigates a budding relationship with an older grad student (a grown up and talented Rory Culkin). Together, the two find their paths crossing at a raw moment in each of their lives. Their connection, through impromptu architecture tours and thoughtful conversations, is as inevitable as it is essential. Kogonada has crafted a film rooted in understatement, perhaps easy to let slip by if you're not careful. But so rich are the visuals and so honest are the circumstances that the opposite happens: this delicate film becomes impossible to look away from.
Like Columbus, Menashe is not a loud film, and its micro-focus on one man's very specific world and his current struggle makes it both entirely unique and entirely relatable. The first foreign-language release from indie powerhouse A24, it's also the first narrative feature in Yiddish to receive a theatrical release in something like 70 years.
Menashe is a widower with a school-aged son in Brooklyn's utlra-orthodox Hassidic Jewish community. He works at a grocery store in the neighborhood and, as is custom, goes on a series of blind dates (arranged by the matchmaker, naturally) in order to find a new wife and mother for his son.
His brother-in-law sees him as a schlub who can't get his life together, and so insists on taking his son to live with his family, where he'll have a mother-figure to care for him until Menashe finds a new mate. Try as he might, Menashe can't seem to get his life together, mucking up errands at work and embarrassing himself at social gatherings. But he isn't a schlub; far from it. He's a man grieving the love of his life, the mother of his child. He's a father who wants the best for his son, which to him means a life at home and not with his in-laws, custom be damned. He's holding down a job he doesn't love while trying his best to honor to the tenets of his faith that give his world its shape.
Neither Columbus or Menashe is a happy film. They deal in mortality and the conversations we have with ourselves as we confront it. They explore the expectations of our communities and families, the obligations we have to each other and ourselves. It's not incorrect to call them both melancholy films. But there's meaning in their melancholy, a deeper question being asked about what matters when nothing else matters?
Neither film has an answer necessarily, but there's something reassuring in spending time with both as they search for it.
COLUMBUS – dir Kogonada. Stars John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin. Opens in Chicago Friday, September 8. Official Site
Passes the Bechdel Test: No; Passes the DuVernay Test: Yes
MENASHE – dir Joshua Weinstein. Stars Menashe Lustig. Opens in Chicago August 11. Official Site
Passes the Bechdel Test: No; Passes the DuVernay Test: No